FDL Book Salon Welcomes Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?
It has been understood for several decades now that Jaron Lanier is a big thinker when it comes to the technologies that define our lives. The computer science pioneer who explained virtual reality to the rest of us inspires journalists to employ terms such as “digital visionary” (The Observer) and “Internet guru” (Publisher’s Weekly).
But he is another kind of thinker as well: a humanist speaking from an enlightenment perspective that recalls the Lunar Society days of two centuries ago, when there was broad recognition of the meeting group between technology and poetry. And where the great scientists of a new age wrestled with not just formulas and calculations but also with the question of how to build a just and humane society.
In his groundbreaking 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget (Vintage), Lanier challenged the digital utopianism that tells us that the solutions to all our problems can be found on the Web. It may have become “fashionable to aggregate the expressions of people into dehumanized data,” he explained, but it not healthy for citizens or for society. Rather, Lanier argued, we should recognize the value, the necessity, of human initiative and reasoned argument.
You Are Not a Gadget was an invitation to think differently about everything. And the conclusions Lanier reached confirmed conclusions that Bob McChesney and I had come to as we prepared our book The Death and Life of American Journalism. We shared – and share – Lanier’s conclusion with regard to the direction of a digital transformation that was emptying out traditional newsrooms but failing to replace them with a sufficient online journalism to employ all the laid off reporters – let alone to serve a democratic society.
“Here’s just one problem: It screws the middle class,” Lanier explained in a 2010 Amazon.com interview on the rise of ‘Web 2.0’ designs. “Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor. This is why newspapers are dying. It might sound like it is only a problem for creative people, like musicians or writers, but eventually it will be a problem for everyone. When robots can repair roads someday, will people have jobs programming those robots, or will the human programmers be so aggregated that they essentially work for free, like today’s recording musicians? Web 2.0 is a formula to kill the middle class and undo centuries of social progress.”
Lanier’s exceptional new book, Who Owns The Future? (Simon & Schuster), builds on that argument with a scorching critique of a digital transformation that is empowering not the great mass of citizens but high-tech monopolies; that is creating not equality of opportunity but a wealth gap that leaves even our most creative people with fewer and fewer options.
“The old ideas about information being free in the information age ended up screwing over everybody except the owners of the very biggest computers. The biggest computers turned into spying and behavior modification operations, which concentrated wealth and power,” Lanier explains. “Sharing information freely, without traditional rewards like royalties or paychecks, was supposed to create opportunities for brave, creative individuals. Instead, I have watched each successive generation of young journalists, artists, musicians, photographers, and writers face harsher and harsher odds. The perverse effect of opening up information has been that the status of a young person’s parents matters more and more, since it’s so hard to make one’s way.”
Jaron Lanier is reopening one of the old debates that Henry David Thoreau was wrestling with when he suggested the prospect that: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” We’ll wrestle with these ideas today, here in the Firedoglake Book Salon.